Spring Has Sprung at Three Graces Farm!

33025280_568124396887772_5347819197936173056_oI love spending my mornings on the front porch with the dogs. As the summer heats up, and humidity kicks in, I’m looking for new ways to make my daytime hours stretch even further, and garden tending easier. I’ll bring you all with me as soon as I can.

Mistakes As Inspiration

I have finally begun unpacking my long lost belongings at Three Graces Farm, and I’ve been finding things that I have not seen, but have been missing, for well over a decade.

I discovered this untrimmed bar of soap that I made a few years ago in a box that Mary Alice had packed away long ago just this morning.

It’s from an original batch of goat’s milk soap that I had accidently burnt (and thought was ruined) and then later rebatched in an attempt a salvage it (which I thought was hopeless). If you know me, you might remember this stuff. It smelled and looked like chocolate without any amendments. So, I did it again and again and again until I perfected the process for Sweet Chocolate Soap. MAC thought I was crazy and wasting materials, but this little misshapen block is proof of accidental genius.

This original bar *still* smells like chocolate, and it’s as hard as a rock; my thumbnail made no impression at all! I took it in the shower with me , and it has the best lather of any soap I’ve ever made. The corners didn’t wear away in the hot water, and I’m excited to see how long it lasts.

I’m not sure, but I think it’s about five years old. I wish I could afford to cure all of my soaps this long, because it truly is primo stuff! So, maybe, I’ll just stockpile half of them….After all, that’s tradition!

Three Graces Farm and the Crooked Path of Dreams

Three years ago on my birthday, just months after that person filed for divorce, I bought a piece of land a lone short mile from the Smokie Mountain National Forest. I loved that tract woods and century-old poison ivy, with its steep hilly inclines littered with remnants of old ‘shining stills, and the shaded creek in the crevasse that became my refrigerator, and hideyhole for the liquor given to me by the old mountain men who liked to court me, jar after jar carefully packed in milk crates and held down in the creek bed with flat rocks dug from the sides of the ravine.

I christened it Three Graces Farm, brought in some pigs to clean out the snakes and eat the underbrush, planted a large plot of garlic and onions, and spent a year gathering herbs and bark and mosses in the forest that, along with a favorite hidden creek up the road and the Little Pigeon River to play in with my dogs, became my home….Then the Chimney Stack fires swept up like a demon’s broom, and most of Cocke and Eastern Sevier Counties, Tennessee, were blanketed with choking smoke and acrid ash. Nearly a thousand private homes were destroyed, and many businesses were lost, including some that I sold soap to. With a new housing crisis, I lost my plot when the man I was buying it from sold it out from under me to a developer for a hotel…after I had already invested more than $20,000.000–far more than the land was actually worth. I lost everything that I had built there, as that conniving old man let strangers come in and take my belongings without notice.

When my sister died this past September just three weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, I found myself with animals all over the country, and a business without a working studio, starting over completely from scratch yet again.

I’m too old for this shit. In my heart I am still 12-years-old. In my mind, I’m just a girl, barefoot, strong and fierce. But years of abuse and neglect and living on other people’s terms has laid waste to my health and my stamina. I can only handle one more do over. I mean, really! Just how many times can a heart be broken before it gives up and turns to dust?

My friend Scott told me he thought I was looking in the wrong places for a new piece of land–a search that had stretched from months into a full year. Following his advice, however, turned out to be a serendipitous stroke of fortune, as I found my new farmstead on the very first day of searching, quite literally an hour after I gave up on ever finding anything worthy of calling home again.

It’s everything I could possibly hope for: 40 acres of fallow pastures, a dense stand of healthy woods up behind my ramshackle house clad in pink asphalt siding fifty years ago long gone, and a creek down below near the main road. The landlord is 81 years old, a stubborn Polish man with a kind heart that has pooped out and nearly killed him three times already. It’s a serious gamble to “rent with an option to buy” from a man like this; a veritable crapshoot, and I’m not certain that my own heart can survive another disaster. But I want this land; I want to be a part of it, and for it to become a part of me…as familiar as the lines in the palm of my hands, and I want to be healed by it, too. So, I paid the rent 13 months in advance so that I can concentrate on film school and turning this place in to a productive, profitable farm, with staked goats mowing the grasses, and my pigs and donkey being rotated through the woods like happy little gremlins of necessary destruction. I haven’t figured out how to get my two Brown Swiss cross cows up here from Tennessee, yet, and I still have to fence the upper and lower pastures away from the central acreage, but I am hopeful for the first time in a very long while.

Miss Robin has kept a massive clutch of doves for me, and my faithful helper, Katie, is bringing my cats, Dominic and Butters back to me from college at the end of May. My black labs, Mazie and Lizzie, are still in California, but Cecil Leo (aka “Baby”) and Sissy Peaches are here to get me out of bed in the mornings and keep me honest to my tasks.

I still have not found another car that I can afford, and have been borrowing one from Scott’s mom, and making minor repairs on it to get it ready for her to sell in exchange for its use. I need a farm truck, and I bought a hay wagon at the farm store a few weeks ago so that I can haul hay and straw and chicken tractors here and there. I have been working on unpacking my things for the first time in many years since Mary Alice started being strangely paranoid and obsessed with boxes, making our last four years at Gilbert House feel like a never-ending move to madness. My little farm kitchen is almost put together, and the living room is mostly organized…but piles of boxes still clutter the soaping studio, and fill the garage to the rafters.

It’s a work in progress like most things in life. Still, I am hopeful. I’m not happy, but I am content and, as things fall into place, I am looking more and more towards whatever future I might have left on this Blue Jewel of GOD’s imaginative making.

According to the internet, I now live in one of the most polluted counties in the United States, but you’d never know it by being here. The air smells like new moss and sweet fresh-cut grass, and the hills around me are covered with a blanket of emerald green and the whooshing sound of the ocean in the trees. I am planning terraced herb gardens in my head, all up and down the property, dreaming of once again filling my apothecary cabinets with colorful harvests and making good medicines without needing to buy this or that from someone else. I am looking forward for the first time in three painful years, and I can envision the sunlight peeking through the clouds that have lost so much of their menacing blackness.

Tomorrow might actually happen. And Three Graces Farm rises with me from the ashes.

On the Specialness of Mismatched Spoons

Ade Bethune once fashioned a lovely word picture for the Catholic Worker about the sacramental beauty of mismatched chairs and hospitality that was so breath-taking to me that I began copying it onto the final page of Acts in nearly every Bible I ever used afterward. It was almost as if she had taken Brother Lawrence by the collar, breathed him in, whole and deep, and then exhaled him onto the page with her black-smudged brush in fine, deliberate strokes–proof, indeed, that absolutely everything physical is potentially sacramental.

In 1999, at the old convent christened Star of the Sea, I sat with Ade and told her that two of her creations meant the most to me: the black crucifix that hung above the mismatched maple plank tables in the white house at Peter Maurin Farm and this simple paragraph about sharing hospitality in simple things. Should I have been surprised when she looked up from the page and asked, “Do you live it?”

This memory came again to me last night as I was getting ready for bed. I have a favourite chair that sits in my room; an old highback kitchen chair with a carved back and hollowed seat that has been painted at least a dozen different colours over the years. Its paint is chipped and worn, it’s grimy black in places and its legs are battered. My mother is a master wood-craftsman; I know how to fix this, so why haven’t I stripped and refinished this thing in the dozen-or-so years that I have had it in my stewardship? Because it is art, and it is too perfect on its own to touch. It goes with nothing, it stands alone, a pale blue eyesore with a checkered past of changing hands and changing hearts, discarded, passed on and neglected….until it passed to me. This chair is one of my finest treasures. It reminds me that beauty is found in the uncommonly commonplace if only you open your eyes to see it. It is, to me, at the deepest level a symbol of family. It is also a key to the mystery of my affections.

Few of the plates in our cupboard match, none of the bowls match the plates. Forks and knives and spoons in the drawers all come from different decades, different sets long ago lost, divided and forgotten. Blue, green and brown bottles from who-knows-where sit in window casings to catch and scatter the sunlight in the mornings. The dining room is littered to overflowing with plants that have been abandoned and adopted from just about everyone we know; the ivy is from a cutting my grandmother once snatched from the crannies a castle wall in Spain and snuck home in a book unnoticed. The living room and the library are stuffed with books once loved by others, then rescued from the dumpsteres of Thomas Loome, et al (I truly have no shame–my parents taught me well); I read them and share them as best as any truly gluttonous bibliophile is capable. You’d probably look at this place and be calling for a garbage truck, but for me? This is home, this is heart….this is a picture of real life.

I believe that family just happens to be whomever GOD chooses to set down in our path in any given moment. I believe that most of my family are as varied and as fragile and, yes, just as useful and as valuable as the books in our shelves, the chairs at our table, the spoons in our drawers. And I believe that heaven on earth is found in merging the whole lot together in the breaking of bread, the sharing of comforts, screaming and yelling at each other until the pain we each carry subsides, and those quiet moments resting with one another’s company in the refracting blue-green light when nothing needs to be said at all.

Family isn’t always pretty. Often they are old and needy and not terribly nice. Sometimes they have minds that are bent and souls that are chipped. All too often they smell like ashtrays or stale beer bottles or footlockers left far too long without a good scrub-down. Sometimes they act for all the world like a tenacious weed that you’d just love to strangle to death and be done with. Yet whilst their lives seem shallow, or sordid, or completely out-to-lunch, their souls’ hearts are not. But if they weren’t here? If they didn’t fill my house with their cracked, broken, totally unorganised selves? This place would be empty and it would cease to be home.

Do I live the ideal of hospitality in mismatched chairs? I try. Often I fail…and then I remember that everything has some intrinsic value and beauty all its own…and I try again, saying to my own soul, “There is no such thing as a mismatched spoon, only a bit of art waiting to be cradled safely in the drawer with all the others.” I need reminding and forgiveness if I somtimes forget.

*Note*: Originally written and published 20 October 2009

On the Supreme Importance of Family: A Love Letter to My Kids (and you all know who you are….)

My Mother did not want me.

It’s just as simple as that.

Not because of any really imperfection in me. Not because of any flaw or fault of hers…at least not any which were not imposed on her by circumstance or misunderstanding.

I was not tiny and delicate like one of her white-faced, ruby-lipped china dolls. I walked before I knew I could crawl, talked before I knew (or cared) not to speak bluntly, and preferred my daddy to her–a fact that she pointed out in aggravated prose in my baby book. Worst of all, I was not a boy, and I would pay for that wrong dearly for many years.

She can’t be blamed, though. She wanted to be Daddy’s Little Girl; that vocation was given to another. She wanted a brother; she, the dark little Indian girl found herself instead sandwiched in between fair-haired, blue-eyed, dazzlingly dimpled sisters who all seemed, to her, to be adored by everyone who met them whilst she waited unnoticed and un-missed (so she thought) in the shadows.

Life made her cold, quiet and envious. She worked hard, perfected her passions, made herself enviable. She became an artist, became mysteriously aloof, and when the time was right, she let me have no illusions that I might still be part of her life. She used me for what I could be used for, and when I no longer served her purposed, she shed me like an old coat.

Maybe that’s why the last therapist I ever wasted good money on told me that mine is an orphan psychology? Maybe not. But, still, I know what it is to feel like you’ve been dropped into a stranger’s family. Not to fit in. To be unwanted. Pushed away and pushed under by cold, hard unmaternal hands. I know what it is to be beaten down, called names and told that you’re stupid, worthless, and a burden. I know what it is to be abused and neglected from whence you came.

I know that you know this too. And I want you to know something else just as strongly.

A couple of you were given to me by your own mothers when you were born because they knew that I would love you just as much as they did, should anything ever happen to them. A few of you I rescued as a matter of necessity from dark, screaming corners that the Devil himself could not tolerate. A few others I have found along the stony parts of the steep and winding trails of my life–places no child should ever have been left, even if it were to die.

I’ve trundled every single one of you off to the deepest, safest, warmest places of my own heart, and in there you will always have a safe and welcome home.

I will never care if you become a doctor or a bus driver or a clown in the circus. I will be blissfully happy with whatever you choose to do with your life as long as it makes you happy and gives service to the world you inhabit.

You are beautiful.

You are brilliant.

You are lovely.

You were made not to be comfortable, or popular, or rich in this life (though, sometimes, it helps to be all of the above!); You were born for greatness. You were placed in this world to change it for the better, to fulfill a divine purpose–a purpose that you will not even realise yourself until it has long since passed you by.

Obey the law, unless it is unjust. And if the law is unjust, fight to make it right. If you get arrested, I will not bail you out of jail. But I will bring you chocolate, bubblegum, colouring books, crayons and chalk, and The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton to while away the hours with as you do your time.

If you have no home or need to hide from the great big world, come home to me, and I will feed you and cry with you in bed and make sure you get kicked right back out the door when it’s time to get off your ass and go do something productive.

If anyone ever hurts you, strikes you down, cheats you, or tries to take your life, they do not deserve to have you in theirs. If they tell you that you must stay, and that they love you because you “make them happy,” RUN before they smother you to death like a wet, moldy towel. And you had better tell them, too, that your mama has a baseball bat…and she knows precisely how to use it if she needs to. >: (

I love you because you exist. I love you even when you do not please me, do not make me happy. I love you when you rage, when you make trouble, when you act like you’ve lost your mind, and when you are a royal pain in my ass. I love you even when you are at your worst, because you are, and because I love you, I hope for what I know you canbe to your own self and to others.

DO NOT ever allow anyone to tell you that you are not good enough, bright enough, strong enough, thin enough or big enough. Do not ever let anyone tell you that you are not worthy, that your life is a mistake, an error or a waste. Never listen to those who hurt you for the sake of hurting you, keeping you down, or keeping you in your “place.” People who say any of these things are bullies…and bullies always lie.

You have the power to save the world one soul at a time–starting with your own.

You are capable of changing society all by your self.

You have the very power of GOD within you, and because of that you can do any damned thing in this moment of time that you choose to do, so long as it does not harm you or anyone else.

Wash your face, brush your teeth, and go out each day with the knowledge that wherever you are, whatever you do, however you choose to do it, I am in your corner, and I love you more than life itself. And if anyone ever tells you different, tell them that your mother said that they can go get bent.

As long as I’m in this world, you *do* have family. As long as I draw breath, you have a home.

*Note*: Originally written and published 07 October 2011

The Distributist’s Camera: Snapshot in a small town

“I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. When I depart from it, evil results follow. I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living….[T]o be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropic fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest, or over a wild flower in Spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”

~John Burroughs, from Leaf and Tendril

Just beyond the fifty-seven glistening, verdant hills, in the far “nort”-eastern corner of St. Croix County, in west-central Wisconsin, around a lazy bend of sweaty, shimmering corn fields, past a fragrant swath of deep, dark alfalfa, and just a quarter-mile ahead of the granite-strewn knoll where so many of the local ancestry rest beneath a canopy of ancient creaking maples beside the old railroad track, there is a place called Kuehl’s (think the keel of a ship), named for it’s owners, sandwiched between the old dilapidated brick building that houses Mr. Cronk’s tractor garage and the rural post office.

Most every weekend afternoon, I take a Benadryl and an aspirin to trick my sinuses and prevent my blood from curdling due to the assault of tobacco smoke I’m about to subject myself to, and I travel the three miles from my little house to Kuehl’s to hold court with my friend Travis, the proprietor’s son, and while the day away.

Travis is convinced that this geography and its people (which we have affectionately christened “Flannel Land”) are going to crush his dreams and kill his soul if he does not flee…quickly. Like every young man with half a brain before him, he’s got itchy feet, wings to fly, and lint in his pockets. I tell him that the only thing standing between him and Scotland, or Syracuse, or Spain, is his own front door–but he’s not yet convinced.

Honestly, though, who needs to travel when you’ve got all of Tolkien and Dickens’ motley brood living right here on Main Street’s stoop? Who needs a ticket to the opera when there are juicy dramas fomenting right under your nose?

Kuehl’s is one of those magical places that hides its true self from all but those who are really looking for it. One of the last truly tenacious Mom&Pop shops, it sells gas and liquor and all the sundry stuffs that one might need on a fishing trip, including worms. It boasts a hot, steaming kitchen from which emits the curling lilt of country music on the radio, the delicious smells of onions and searing meat, and piles of the best fried chicken and potato logs (called “broasted” and “jojos” in the local patois) that you will ever find. Jim Kuehl, a proud, gruff, soft-hearted Mason (who reminds me so much of my own grand-dad) mock-begrudgingly owns this place with his equally soft-hearted wife, Mickie, and does himself a serious disservice by keeping his prices lower than most other businesses in the region. But in doing so he has also been of great benefit to his neighbors who will gladly drive out of their way to patronize him.

High atop the soda cooler sits a small television, which always seems to set the agenda for conversation during a lull, be it politics, the current headlines, a horse race or the weather.

And, so, here I sit with Travis and my needlework on lazy afternoons, watch the people come and go, listen to their many stories and do what one cannot, or does not, do in the Big City….I spend time with my neighbors and share in a life lived the way it should be.

Around the chipped white formica roundtable under a wall tacked with peppered sheets of all the local happenings, calling cards and smarty-pants signs (“Caution: Old Grump Crossing”), vociferous discussions play out over the ever-changing clutter of beer and soda bottles, coffee cups, and deli wrappers filled to brimming with luscious things that are supposed to kill us because they taste so good. Veterans from the last five wars, a few bent and broken, others full of memories and sympathy, drift in and out and bless anyone who’s willing to listen with their own hard-won experiences. Teachers from the local school, the publisher of the Tribune, the librarian from two towns over, the local Lutheran pastor, and the state trooper who lives down the road–all appear at varied intervals to purchase gas or bread or a bottle of spirits, and stop just long enough to hear the news and tell what they know.

Did you hear that the Obermeuller girl is taking her calf to State?…Pray for Josh; he’s going to be in rehab for the next six months….Mr. Jeske died the other night; would you make a hot-dish for his wake?…Natalie got kicked whilst gelding a horse….Mandy is finally getting married!

It seems that the more time passes, the more varied and layered the lives of these people appear to me. Like the patchwork of fields that roll away out beyond the glass door of this storefront, the lives lived around this valley are pieced together with relationships and interests and talents and beliefs as varied as the hues of a brilliant crystal prism. They weave in and out of one another, blending here and there, contrasting at short intervals, some shiny, others dull, each with its own character, all interesting and lovely to contemplate.

…Marcella arrives with Eleanor to sit in the corner booth, have their lunch, and talk quietly for hours about whatever it is that little old ladies talk about; Nelson the Anarchist Beekeeper rails against the perversities of big government before running out the door to his next project; Lloyd blows in like a small storm, all glower and snark, tanned and sinewy from tending the golf course under the wide, blue sky, to flirt sheepishly with Natalie; Carly has dyed her hair an ungodly shade of black, and sits quietly, dark eyes watchful under long, heavy bangs whilst she chews absently on that cupid’s bow lip of hers….Sharon straggles in with a weird expression behind her brow to tell me that she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and it doesn’t look good; might she “borrow” our dog, Daisy (that she loves so much), for company when she starts chemotherapy? Gail arrives to sit at our table because it’s been a very long week at the factory and she just needs a good laugh….

What is supposed to be the hard-earned living of a single family in a small town, many miles of blacktop ribbon removed from the nearest large city, is, in fact, the proverbial kitchen table and confessional of an entire community. Out of this gathering place is borne the first word of births and deaths and accidents, weddings, separations, Darwinian mind-benders and so many fine accomplishments. From so many of these people come news of farmers in need of help, children in need of clothes, elderly in need of hot meals and anything else that might be important enough to broadcast via the Tin-Can Telegraph Wire which, as it just so happens, is pretty much anything and everything. And as I perch here, needle in hand, in this swirling, heady, smoke-filled store, raucous with laughter and music and near-constant chatter, I catalogue the memory of each bit of news, every story I hear, every prayer shot up, every Sven and Ole’ joke, into the coloured cotton floss that pierces my linen canvas to remember where I was when.

Every Chesteronian who knows G.K. as their spiritual father knows well that the living of life is most often discovered in small, seemingly-inconsequential things. No need to pack a bag and go elsewhere! Entire, vast galaxies are contained in a word, a glance, a bottle of beer. I am peering through the lens of one who knows exactly why one should believe in the impossible, and why it is good to spend an occasional day lying on one’s back, painting sweeping murals on one’s ceiling with a broom and buckets of brightly pigmented paint. I consider afresh life in this too-small-to-be-on-the-map, dream-crushing, soul-killing town with a heart set ablaze with the realization that if I want to find faeries and castles and dragons to slay, I need go no further than the garden in my own back yard. Magic reveals itself in the turning of soil, the planting of seeds, the breaking of bread, the making of wine, picking wool off of fence posts by the roadside and flowers from the ditch, and in the hot, sweaty kisses of a play-wearied child. And falling in love–real, true, abiding love–happens all on its own, without warning, sitting at a chipped white formica table on a Saturday afternoon in the smoky, unassuming haze of all that is simple, sweet, common and holy, listening to tales told by one’s neighbor and hearing in their voice the echo of GOD when you least expect it.

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

Yep. I get it….

*Note*: Originally written and published November 4, 2011

On Pilgrimage: Giving the Addict His Due

“The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love.” – Dorothy Day

Most of the fine china had been cleared from the white linen-clad dining table. The delicate silver was soaking in a hot soda bath, and the candles had been extinguished. Irish coffee filled the cups of the few guests who remained at the table long after the dinner had ended and all others had taken their leave for the evening.The friendly banter that had threaded through family gossip and the myriad reasons that people lose their Catholic faith suddenly took an unexpected, and nearly disastrous, turn with a single comment:

“I never give money to beggars,” she exclaimed proudly, “I just know that if I do, they’ll go out and buy liquor, or worse, drugs. I give my money to charities that actually deserve it and will use it the way I think they should.”

Dolores, the woman who made this assertion, had earlier announced that she is the Biblical “go-to” in her parish, and that she is responsible for religious education of the same in her parish, yet, this statement prompted a very serious question: How does your attitude square with discipleship in Christ?

“…So, you honestly don’t think that you’re bearing false witness when you assume that someone you don’t even know is going to do something you don’t approve of with your dollar?”

“No. GOD gave me a brain; I know when I’m being fooled by a lazy user,” she said with a patronizing sneer.

“But, Dolores, Christ told us to give alms, and not to deny anyone who asks of us. He never said, ‘Make sure they’re worthy first.’”

“Yes, well Jesus didn’t live in our time. He didn’t know how bad the world would get! That’s why we’re given a brain, so we can figure it out on our own!”

“Dolores, He’s GOD; He lives outside of time and space. He knows.”

“Maybe so, but I still say it’s wrong to give cash to beggars and I won’t do it. If they need help, let them go to a shelter and ask for it. It’s not my responsibility.”

Sadly, this is an attitude that has been let to run rampant in our present society. We call ourselves Christians, we say that we are faithful to the Gospel, but are we really? And is this attitude even honest in light of the Divine Commission and Christ’s command to abide in Him?

For many centuries in the Church, beggars were considered ambassadors of GOD; it was an honour to share one’s wealth with a stranger who had nothing. Today, here in the United States, we consider ourselves to be a generous, GOD-fearing people, but is this truly the case? And whose responsibility is it, really, to care for the homeless, the diseased, the destitute and abandoned?

According to Christ, all of the nations will be judged not according to how many churches they build, or how reliable their organized social services are, but according to how–and even if–we as individuals answer the plight of the poor and disenfranchised when and where we find them.

As you do to the least of these My brethren, so you do it unto Me.

Drunks in the Gutters

Words express, but examples persuade. – Pope Benedict XVI

By the time most people end up on the street, some pretty substantial things have taken place to disrupt their home life. It’s really not that easy to become homeless, unless one makes a deliberate, momentous choice to do so and, generally speaking, that just doesn’t happen except in rare cases of severe psychological disturbance. Home foreclosures, death of a parent, spouse, or child, psychiatric stress and/or personality disorders unrecognized and untreated, shunning by family, church group, or base community, physical, mental and emotional trauma—these are all catalysts that, left unattended, can and do lead to detachment from society. Generally speaking, however, becoming homeless is not a voluntary act, nor does it occur in a single moment.

Statistics tallied by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and the National Coalition for the Homeless, assert that in the U.S. there are somewhere between 700,000 and 2,000,000 homeless people living on our streets at any given time (though some studies show a more alarming count at around 3.5 million—a full 1% of the U.S. populace).

Of these:

Upwards of 40% of the homeless population are children.
More than 107,000 of them are military veterans, although there are nearly 1.5 million veterans who are at risk. (And whilst only 8% of the general population can claim veteran status, nearly one-fifth (20%) of the entire homeless population are, in fact, veterans).

Upwards of 66% of the entire homeless demographic suffer with substance abuse, dependence, and/or mental illness.

It is very difficult to imagine that children, who have yet to develop the skills associated with competent self-care, and prior-service military personnel would “choose” to be out on the street. Whilst the numbers seem overwhelming, however, a day spent at any local homeless shelter or drop-in safe haven will adequately demonstrate that the statistics are, indeed, blisteringly accurate–and, most likely, conservative.

Self-medication: A Means to An End

It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart. – an OCD Sister to Dorothy Day

To say that the homeless are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society would be a rash understatement. Couple the unimaginable stress of day-to-day uncertainty with the fear, shame, loss of dignity, hunger, sleeplessness, and sporatic violence (over this past decade alone, acts of assault perpetrated by housed persons in the U.S. resulted in 244 known deaths of homeless people and 636 reported incidents of non-lethal violence), it is no wonder that people in the homeless demographic would turn to drugs and alcohol as a source for coping and solace.

Unfortunately, by the time a homeless person begins begging for coinage on the street to supplement their habit, they are almost without question already physiologically addicted to their substance of choice. This means that for that person, getting their next fix is very truly a matter of life and death. Withdrawal symptoms from psychoactive substances varies from flu-like symptoms and nightmares in the most tolerable end of the detox spectrum, to sensory hallucinations, profound confusion, psychosis, cardio-vascular accidents, gran mal seizures, stroke, and yes, death. An ugly, painful, protracted way to die that, more often than not, occurs without the benefit of any medical assistance or even a kind hand to hold onto.

As You Do To the Least of These

Christian love is not philanthropy. – Father Stanley Jaki

So, is it true that such people do not deserve the change in our pockets? Have they really “chosen” the hell that they live? And if they went to a shelter for help, would they actually get the medical and social services that they need. Maybe. Maybe not. This still doesn’t address the fact that when a man stands in front of us with his head down and his hand out, we are faced with a choice to act, and perspective makes a world of difference in the choices we make.

Once again, as a Christian people, we are called to a different paradigm than that of the world. As such, are we acting as true disciples of Christ when we refuse a man a dollar and think to ourselves, “Let him go to the shelter?” What does the Church say?

For the average Catholic, the Holy Writ alone is a gold mine for answering these questions, starting with Matthew 25. This entire chapter of scripture is devoted to the consequences of obedience, disobedience, faithfulness, faithlessness, and slacking off until final judgment. Verses 31 – 46 are particularly important because in this passage, Jesus explains to His disciples in fine detail what the last judgment will focus on: how did we treat our fellow man in light of Christ? “Feed Me, clothe Me, welcome Me, care for Me.” Nowhere, in this passage (or any other, for that matter) does Christ tell us that He is found only in the “worthy” poor. We are not told to ask for identification or references. We are never encouraged to get applications first. We are only told that, “as you do this to them, so you do it to Me.”

St. James takes this admonition a step further by declaring that the poor are exalted (Jas. 1: 9), that the only “true” religious observance is to care for the widows and orphans (2: 27), and that in oppressing the poor whilst honoring the rich, we show partiality and commit a sin against charity (2: 8-10) … which is, of course, more accurately a sin against Christ.

The way in which the Church understands and promulgates these passages is very clear: each and everyone of us has a personal responsibility to care for the poorest of the poor. To say or do otherwise is to make a mockery of Christ and put one’s own soul in immortal danger.

Yes, well Jesus didn’t live in our time. He didn’t know how bad the world would get!

The Truth About Catholic Stewardship

You never give to the poor what is yours; you merely return to them what belongs to them. For what you have appropriated [for yourself] was given for the common use of everybody. The land was given [by GOD] for everybody, not just the rich. – St. Ambrose of Milan

There is no way of getting around it. For two solid millenia, the Catholic Church has not only embraced Christ’s command to care for the poor as a vehicle for sacramental union with Him, she has also espoused the virtues of voluntary poverty for all of her children. Bishops in the first four centuries of the Church not only held up the poor as blessed, but chastised anyone who would cause them suffering by greed and selfish pursuit:

The bread that is in your box belongs to the hungry; the coat in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes you do not wear belong to the barefoot; the money in your vault belongs to the destitute. – St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, c. A.D. 370

Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to the one who has nothing. Neither is it small to GOD, if we have given what we could. – St Gregory Naziansen, Bishop of Constantinople, late fourth century

Nothing is your own. You are a slave and what is yours belongs to the Lord. For a slave has no property that is truly his own; naked you were brought into this life. – Asterius, Bishop of Amasea, from “The Unjust Steward,” c. A.D. 400

In addition to the Church Fathers’ directives to the universal laity, nearly all of the consecrated religious foundations of the Church, from the Desert Fathers and the Order of St. Benedict, to that fire starter, St. Francis of Assisi in Italy and the equally incendiary Carmelite reforms of Spain’s own San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Ávila, have demonstrated a clear, consistent devotion to the concept of voluntary poverty as a right way of living in the world, and an equally strong insistence that all of their superfluous wealth, whether in donations or personal property, should be dedicated to caring for the poor.

St. John Bosco, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Peter Maurin, and the Servant of GOD, Dorothy Day, to name just a few, have all stood with a mass cloud of witnesses, and have testified with their lives to the fact that if we are not taking care of the poor–without prejudice, judgment, or pride–then we are not fulfilling the Gospel mandate, and we are not being obedient to Christ.

Even in our own present day, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have emphatically reiterated the mind of the Church, that it is our sacred duty to come along side the poor as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to care for them as Christ (see: Sollicitudo Rei Socialis; The Ratzinger Report, etc.); even better, whilst noting that the heretical perversions of Liberation Theology and “Prosperity Doctrine” miss the entire point of the Gospel mandate—that in serving one another, especially those whom we have no natural affection for, we serve Christ Himself—they simultaneously hold up regular devotion to corporal and spiritual works of mercy as authentic Christian love in action. Whether or not we will answer this call to love, however, is another matter entirely.

Love is a Verb

It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor, but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. – G.K. Chesterton, in Heretics

So, is it wrong to give a homeless person money, even of one “knows” that that person will spend it on alcohol or drugs instead of food, clothing, or shelter? Once again, the canon of Scripture is our first recourse:

Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are left desolate.
Open your mouth, judging righteously,
maintain the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 31: 6-9

Make yourself beloved in the congregation; bow your head low to the great man. Incline your ear to the poor, and answer him peaceably and gently. Deliver him who is wronged from the hand of the wrongdoer; do not be fainthearted in judging a case. Be like a father to the orphans … you will then be like a son of the Most High, and He will love you more than does your own mother.” – Sirach 4: 7-10

Heaping Coals on the Head of Misery

If we choose not to take scripture seriously for our own sakes, consider this point of simple logic, too: by refusing alms to someone that we consider (rightly or wrongly) to be unworthy, we actually risk compounding our own sin several fold:

1. By refusing alms to the stranger on the basis of our own imperfect knowledge and prejudices, we bear false witness against our neighbor. No one knows the heart of anyone but GOD who created them. And what if the mendicant before you really does hop on down to the liquor store to buy a bottle? So what? That person will answer to GOD for his own actions; we are called to be our brothers’ keepers, not their consciences.

2. In bearing false witness against another, and refusing them in their need, we also act scandalously, putting them in a near occasion of sin. We refuse him a dollar; very likely the twenty people he met before our shadow fell over his brow refused him, too. There’s only so much a despairing man can take. And, so, when the pain becomes unbearable, and the gnawing in his gut screams out for soothing, he robs another to take by force what we had the opportunity to just give him service–we have, as the Apostle Paul warned the Hebrews against, “neglected hospitality.”

3. We have violated the great commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your GOD with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22: 37-40

In assuming that another human being does not “deserve” to have the same necessities and comforts that we take for granted, we are, in effect, placing ourselves on a pedestal. If we say that any earthly good that has been entrusted to our stewardship may be held back from another because we believe that we deserve to keep it, we dishonour GOD. In fact, we make ourselves gods by denying another what we have in surplus, and we do so to our own detriment.

What’s Right with the World

“Stretch forth your hand to the poor,
so that your blessing may be complete.
Give graciously to all the living,
and withhold not kindness from the dead.
Do not fail those who weep,
but mourn with those who mourn.
Do not shrink from visiting the sick man,
because of such deeds you will be loved.
In all that you do, remember the end of your life,
and then you will never sin.” – Sirach 7: 32-36In his essay, What’s Right with the World, G.K. Chesterton notes that it is the world itself that is right in this life. It’s “everything else” that is wrong—most maddeningly so our own wrong thinking with regard to our rightful place here.

Take a good look at the world around you, and then tell yourself that you do not possess enough. If you can do that without feeling even the slightest twinge of guilt or silliness, then you are most assuredly insane. But if you can do this, if you can contemplate the birches and the stars and the seas in their true light, and recognize your own insignificant smallness in the midst of our Majesty’s Creation, then you must also acknowledge that GOD has made the earth so extraordinarily, superfluously bountiful that it cannot possibly be possessed by anyone. And if you can admit that much, then you can also admit that giving away the change in your pocket to the stranger who asks it of you, without hesitation, is not a violation of morals, but a common sense imitation of GOD towards His Creation; He gives freely, and lavishly, without counting the cost, in spite of the fact that not one of us “deserves” it. So we, too, must give freely and lavishly to those who ask of us, even if they are the addict on the street. In doing so we prove our faith in Providence by making the world more beautiful as it should be. That, after all, is what the coming of the Kingdom of Christ is really all about—creating a new, beautiful society within the shell of the old.

 *Note*: I wrote this in June 2010 shortly after the American Chesterton Society Conference in Seattle, where the opening conversation occurred when I was the co-foundress of the Gilbert House Catholic Worker Community in west-central Wisconsin where I was billed as: “and has a life-long love of the agrarian tradition that is rooted in the great religious foundations of the Church, particularly the importance of artistry, self-sufficiency, community service, compassionate care and services to the poor, the disabled, and the oldest and youngest members of society.” All true, but I’ve grown less patient over the years. The woman I spoke with really was called Dorothy (I have no doubt that she has died by now of very old age), which made that experience all the more remarkable.

The Met Gala and Catholic Apoplexia

Yesterday Catholics all over the U.S. went apeshit ballistic on social media over a bunch of celebutards doing their best to ape the Faith in appearance only. Without social media, none of us would have even known about it. But just put this in perspective:

1. No real, consecrated vestments were worn, and no real sacrilege took place. None of the gaudy crap was blessed, and half if it looks like cheap trash not worthy of any Altar, even one where Cardinal Dolan is squatting…though there was one coronet that I would most definitely wear whilst gardening. It was wicked posh!

2. ALL of our Catholic vesture is borrowed from ancient secular and pagan cultures, and much of what we think of as holy is actually military garb….Romans weren’t gasping for breath in apoplectic fits over Catholic priests and bishops wearing chasubles and copes1,500 years ago; if they had, the Modernists would surely be reminding us ad nauseum that there was a time when the Church was unlawfully impersonating the military forces of the day.

3. If you can’t tell the difference between Kati Perry dressed up like a post-menopausal drag queen “angel” and the real thing (believe me: there is *NOOO* comparison), you deserve to be offended.

4. There are people around the world RIGHT NOW who are being *murdered* during Mass for the *PRIVILEGE* of being Catholic; priests being martyred at the Altar in persona Christi. We are ALL called by virtue of our baptism to martyrdom. If a bunch of ignorant morons dressed up for early Halloween really strikes you as persecution, you need to get your head examined.

5. “Because the world first hated Me, you will be hated, also….”

You signed up for this. You are either looking forward to eternity, or you are looking back at the world. You can’t have it both ways. Get over your pampered selves, and have some perspective. Be ready to die for what you believe, and don’t be such a bunch of pussies about it.

6. Be proud of the fact that these people see the trappings of the Altar beautiful enough to pretend at. And remember that the vesture and paraments that people like *me* make look just as flimsy in the eyes of Heaven’s reality. Our sacrifices are all gossamer gloss with tarnish. And GOD loves us anyway.

I’ll give you a great example:

When I make a set of vestments for a priest, it’s an act of prayer; it’s tactile contemplation. Every single stitch. I pour everything into it: my wants, my heartaches, my memories, my sorrows, my screaming matches with GOD, my tears, my hopes and dreams for others, my fears about this world. Years later, I can point to any piece and tell you what I was thinking, what I wrestled with, where my heart was.

When I’m finished, they get blessed and consecrated, and they go into service.

When people see my vestments worn in the sanctuary, they have no idea. It’s just a priest, saying Mass. When I see my vestments worn in the sanctuary, I remember what’s in that chasuble, that stole, that pall…the maniple…the beautiful blood red cross I stitched into the amice that the priest kissed before he wrapped it around his shoulders….and I silently say again and again, “Father, please hear me. Graciously hear me!”

Now if someone had worn *my* vestments for some bullshit party, I’d be annoyed. But these people have not a clue about what they really mean…and it’s not worth my energy to even bother getting worked up over it.

Some people are suggesting nepharious intentions in this preening party of megalomaniacs, but intent requires knowledge. I wonder how many of these people are actually capable of answering a quiz about what those play vestments really symbolize?

For that matter, how many American Catholics who *haven’t* attended my Altar Linens Retreat could correctly respond to the same quiz???